Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar was published in 1959, and captures brilliantly the claustrophobic atmosphere of a small town. It tells the story of Billy Fisher, a Yorkshire teenager unable to stop lying – especially to his three girlfriends. Trapped by his boring job and working-class parents, Billy finds that his only happiness lies in grand plans for his future and fantastical day-dreams of the fictional country Ambrosia.
I read ‘Billy Liar’ as part of the David Bowie reading challenge that I first heard of on Jade Scatterbooker’s blog.
A long time ago, when I left home to study journalism, I packed, along with my kettle and pots and pans, the late Keith Waterhouse’s excellent ‘Waterhouse on Newspaper Style’. I would still have it now if one of the dogs hadn’t decided to chew it up. It’s proved to be invaluable on many occasions over the last twenty-five years and Waterhouse was a journalist I admired, respected and was influenced by on so many levels.
But I never read ‘Billy Liar’ for some reason (and have never watched the film either), so it was a book I was really looking forward to.
And what a wonderful book it is. As the name suggests, the hero, Billy, is a compulsive liar. He lives in a fantasy world and his lies get him into deeper and deeper trouble. The narrative takes place over one single day in Billy’s life, and in that short space of time Waterhouse brilliantly conveys Billy’s frustration with his life, and his longing for something else, away from the small town mentality of the fictional Yorkshire town of Stradhoughton.
The wonderful dry humour, the comedic situations that are almost farcical, are tempered by a sadness deep at the heart of this book. Billy needs something more, but he’s his own worst enemy. He’s a complex character too; the lies he tells verge on cruelty, and his treatment of Barbara and the dodgy sounding passion pills are worrying to say the least.
But at the heart of this story is a brilliantly-drawn character who is bigger than the life he’s been given, the life he can’t escape – unless it’s to his fictional world, ‘Ambrosia’ where he can be the man he dreams of being. In Stradhoughton, he’s out of place, trapped where he doesn’t belong, surrounded by people he doesn’t understand. During the evening, he watches the people around him, as Saturday night begins:
‘I stood for a quarter of an hour at a time, watching them get off buses and disperse themselves about the streets. I was amazed and intrigued that they should all be content to be nobody but themselves.’
This is a real classic. Not a word is wasted. Beautifully executed, evocative prose and an absolute masterclass in characterisation. Billy Liar is a must read.